Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Excellent writing about unpromising characters

A review of "Broken", by Daniel Clay, from Amazon.
The characters in the book are unpromisingly similar to the inhabitants of a Jeremy Kyle show. The “first person” is Skunk, an eleven-year old girl in a coma; her mother has left; her au pair is torn between a relationship with the Skunk's father and her form teacher; there is a violent dad in the house opposite, living on benefits and dope, with a gaggle of stealing, foul-mouthed, lying, promiscuous daughters; this dad has beaten up a local lad, who is consequently drifting into madness.

And yet “Broken” is a surprisingly humorous, compassionate and empathic story. Its strongest suit is in relation to the issue of aspirations. This is a matter of keen interest to Skunk – balanced as she is not only between childhood and adulthood but between life and death. Surrounded by people who she sees making mistakes and misjudgments, she has to try and work out how to make the best of her own life. Were it not for the sex, violence, language, drugs and nudity (!), this would be the sort of thought-provoking book that would help a teenager to grapple with issues of growing up. As it is, I think I'd rather my children instead watched “Dead Poet's Society” when the time comes ....

The book is also strong on empathy. The author does an excellent job of getting into the mind of his characters – quite a feat, given that they range from emotionally deprived teenage girls who find in promiscuity a substitute for the love that they don't know, through their violent, protective father, to “Broken”, the nickname Skunk and her brother give the nineteen-year old lad who drifts into a terrifying madness. And whereas we are given the ability to empathise with these people, we are shown how society around them simply doesn't have the capacity to care.

With such a grim tale to tell, it would have been easy for the author to have written bleak and depressing social commentary. But – reminiscent of “Angela's Ashes” set in the present day – there is humour and warmth, and a surprisingly upbeat, satisfying ending. I think this is probably the best new fiction I have read in the last year or so. If you are prepared to listen to a story of parts of our society that generally have a discreet veil drawn across them, then here would be a good place to start.